Australia has not so far had the Varroa Mite that’s been decimating bee populations in European honeybee colonies, however, according to pollinator expert Professor James Cook from University of Western Sydney’s Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, it may only be a matter of time.
Just last year quarantine services intercepted two batches of infected hives on ships entering the country, he told The Fifth Estate.
If it does establish itself, not only are commercial honey producers at risk, but also both the domesticated and wild European swarms that pollinate many of our major crops.
Many commercial honey-producing hives are actually hired by agricultural enterprises for the flowering season to ensure crop pollination, Cook says.
Backyard bees are booming
The European honeybee is also a growth industry on a smaller scale in Australia. A quick Google search reveals backyard beekeeping businesses are booming, whether it’s hire-a-hive operations, community-based operations like Melbourne’s Rooftop Honey or hobby hive ownership.
Take for example hive design innovators Flow Honey, which crowd-funded their multi-award winning design to manufacturing stage in 2015, and had by February this year sold more than 51,000 flow hives to buyers in 130 countries.
The company recently branched out into creating a limited-edition pollinator house built from its own offcuts for solitary bees, one of the types of Australian native bees.
Australia is home to around 2000 species of native bees, Cook explains, and the majority of these are solitary bees that live in places as diverse as the broken stems of ferns, holes in the ground or cracks in trees or walls.
We also have around six species of native stingless bees that are similar to European bees in that they live in hive-building colonies and produce honey.
The quantity of honey is not as substantial as the European bees, but “sugarbag” honey has been a traditional food in Aboriginal culture for millennia.
The native stingless bee is also not affected by the Varroa Mite, which is uniquely adapted to the European bee. So Cook says that supporting our native bee populations can help build resilience to the Varroa threat.
Cook says there is research underway looking at the role the native bees can play in pollinating apple orchards and cherry orchards. Surveys show native bees are extremely active in some orchards, particularly in more easterly areas such as Bilpin.
In northern NSW, trials of native beehives in macadamia orchards have shown they result in a more than 30 per cent increase in the volume of nuts produced.
The Australian Native Bee Company has been providing a pollination service to macadamia growers in the area for more than seven years.
Company owner Steve Maginnity says that using native bees has been proven to increase final nut set by between 57 and 97 per cent, ensure retention of nuts is higher, and increase kernel weights by between 18 and 31 per cent.
Cooks points out that macadamias are the only Australian native food plant farmed commercially at scale, and that the success with the native bees makes sense as the trees and the bees have evolved together.
The greenhouse-based cropping sector is also interested in the native bees, Cook says, as European bees “do not like” glasshouses and also – they sting.
The native bees have been trialled with promising results for pollinating capsicums and eggplants.
Tomato growers are also interested, as one of their biggest costs is having workers hand-pollinate the flowers. Native bees, being very small, are potentially likely to succeed where other pollinators might not.
Another positive of native bees is they can do particularly well in urban areas, Cook says, as urban zones tend to have plants flowering year-round.
So take a closer look at the insects in your garden, park or visiting the basil on the balcony and you may spot a native stingless bee or one of the solitary bees such as a blue-banded bee, which looks similar to a European bumblebee with lovely bright blue stripes on its rear.
Cook gave us a few tips for helping our native bee populations to thrive:
- If you can avoid using chemicals in the garden, do so
- If you do have to spray, doing it at night causes less harm
- Plant a landscape or garden with diverse species including trees such as flowering eucalypt, mid-height species like lilly pilly, grevillea and leptospermum and ground levels plants such as culinary herbs and daisies – and leave some of the flowering weeds in place too as plants like dandelions are excellent bee pantries
- Don’t regularly mow the lawn to extremely short – plenty of grasses and other ground covers provide food and habitat
- Leave some patches of exposed, well-drained earth for ground-dwelling solitary bees to nest in
- Check any small cracks in masonry or brickwork for solitary bees before deciding to fill them
- Check out a source like native bee expert Dr Megan Halcroft’s Bees Business for free designs and advice for DIY pollinator habitats.